This very popular book comes through as unbelievably trivial. It basically
explains the evolution of human civilization based on the mathematical notion
of "non-zero sum game". The author claims that this is not equivalent to
"cooperation" but your English dictionary will tell you that the concept he
discusses is precisely that. So it takes Wright about 400 pages to discover
that human civilizations were built out of cooperation.
Wright claims that this is a consequence of the mathematics of non-zero sum games: over the long run, the outcome of non-zero sum games tends to be more positive than negative. Thus it is not surprising that everything, from ecosystems to human societies, rely heavily on cooperation. This is hardly an enlightening claim.
The first part's most annoying feature is one that keeps reoccurring among this kind of bestsellers: instead of examining the great civilizations of the past, they display a passion for obscure (and largely failed) civilizations. Here you will be treated to detailed analyses of some Native American tribes (brace yourself for sentences such as "consider the Kumeyaay of southern California") and the Polynesian islands that are so popular with this kind of popular literature. Why in heaven one should study human civilization by focusing on obscure and failed civilizations instead of the Egyptian, Greek, Persian, Roman, British, Chinese and Indian civilizations is a mystery. Or maybe not so much a mystery: by focusing on obscure peoples, this kind of writers can "prove" theories that they could not prove if they focused on the more famous and successful civilizations.
Next, we are treated to a series of trivial statements ("fertile environments often accelerate cultural evolution") and to some truly appalling statements. For example, Wright claims that there exists "a close connection between population size and density on one hand and technological and social complexity on the other". How thousands of readers can believe such statements without thinking could be the subject of a book. Over the last century, the most densely populated among the major countries have been India and China. Not a single technological innovation has come from those two countries in one century. The most densely populated country in Africa is Rwanda, which is mostly famous for genocide, which I would not consider a technological innovation. Bangladesh, Pakistan, Indonesia and so forth are the most densely populated places in today's world: is Wright claiming that they are developing the most sophisticated societies?
American readers in particular should know better: for two centuries most technological and social progress has come from the least populated of the western countries: the USA.
Thus this obvious connection is hardly visible at all. If Wright had studied the major civilizations instead of studying Polynesian islands, he would have noticed what any backpacker knows.
When Wright (at last) starts examining the great civilizations of the past, of course he, an American, has to include Mesoamerica and South America next to the four river valley civilizations. Then he shrinks them down to just three: China, the Near East and, again, the New World. Apparently, he counts American civilizations from the day that someone built something, but counts non-American civilizations only from the day that writing was invented (writing was never invented in South America). Thus Jericho or Catal Huyuk (cities of 10,000 years ago) do not qualify as ancient civilizations, but the "ancient" cities of South America (just 2,000 years old) do.
Mesopotamia the cradle of civilization? He calls it "Eurocentric propaganda" (never mind that Mesopotamia is in Asia, not Europe, and that no Mesopotamian power ever reached the shores of Europe). He compares the Sumerian cities with Monte Alban, the first known city in the Americas, but forgets to mention that three thousand years separate Monte Alban from Mesopotamia: maybe they did undergo the same process, as he claims, but it would be fair to tell the reader that it took three thousand years for the Mesoamericans to do what the Mesopotamians had done (and in between many many events may have happened to foster that similarity). He thinks the Aztecs were as smart as the Romans in engineering and administration, but, again, forgets to mention the 1,500 years of difference. By the time the Aztecs were ready to compete with Roman aqueducts, bridges, multi-storey houses, roads, etc, Italy was in the middle of the Renaissance. Good luck finding the equivalent of 16th-century Florence and Venice among the Aztec cities that the Spaniards destroyed.
As for the Indoeuropeans and the Turkic people, who both went on to conquer the world (including the very country that Wright inhabits), apparently they don't deserve to be mentioned, although all the evidence is that they developed independently as a civilization, just like his favorite Olmecs and Polynesians.
(For a funny example of Wright's America-centric views, check out his list of supranational organizations: IME, WTO, UN and NAFTA. In other words, only the ones that include the USA. The European Union is mentioned four pages later as merely something "in some ways like the NAFTA". ASEAN, the African Union and the League of Arab States, which are all much bigger and older than NAFTA, don't make it to Wright's list of supranational entities).
But this America-centric propaganda is only a marginal point. Wright's main point is the growth of complexity. He claims that "in all three cases the same thing happened", and, of course, the same thing is the non-zero sum game creating more and more complexity. To prove it, he has simply omitted 90% of human history. He writes "Sure there were setbacks aplenty... but in the long run the setbacks proved temporary". Maybe. It all depends on how superficial and vague one wants to be. A European could claim that the complexity of the Roman empire was never rebuilt after the "setback" of the Barbarian invasions: the old land of the Roman empire is still fragmented in some 20 states, some of them as small as Vatican City. The old land of the Mongol empire is even more fragmented and chaotic. Only with the advent of the euro has Western Europe regained some of the smooth trade that used to take place 1,600 years ago in the Roman empire. And the silk road has never been safe again as it was in Mongol times: to this day that complexity has never been restored. Both "complexities" may well be recreated at some point (globalization is definitely a trend towards that goal), but, for anyone who has studied history, there is no guarantee at all that it won't be followed by another cycle of warfare, destruction and fragmentation.
The real difference in modern history is that we ran out of Barbarians. Previous collapses of civilizations happened when "barbarians" invaded an empire. The western civilization's survival is probably due to the fact that it has westernized the whole planet (even North Korea is westernized, since it adopted the political system invented by Marx and Lenin, two Europeans). Is this a trend towards complexity, or simply the triumph of the people who proved more efficient at warfare?
He views the formation of national states out of medieval fragmentation as the inevitable destiny of the economies of the medieval city-states, driven by non-zero sumness, but it seems to me that national states formed more rapidly and more easily in Eastern Europe (where city-states were not as sophisticated as in Italy or Holland) and formed much much later in Western Europe (Italy and Germany were still a mess of small political entities two centuries ago). In fact, tourists to Western Europe can still enjoy the medieval oddities of Monaco or Andorra (tiny independent city-states), while the last city-states of Eastern Europe were wiped out centuries ago by the larger Russian and/or Polish-Lithuanian empires. It seems to me that nation states were created by brute force where a political entity (such as Castilla in Spain or Prussia in Germany) prevailed over its neighbors. And then those tiny Balkan states are yet another story: they were created by the disintegration of the Ottoman empire, but this event is omitted from the book (maybe because it proves the opposite of what Wright wants to prove).
Wright's belief that human history evolves towards higher and higher complexity is vague because he never defines which "complexity" he is talking about. For example, what is more complex, the Soviet bureaucracy (probably the most sophisticated bureaucracy ever created, no matter how hated by the people) or the current mess of post-Soviet republics stretching from the Baltics to Central Asia? What does the disintegration of the Soviet Union tell Wright about the future of large complex systems? Isn't communism the ultimate case of non-zero sumness? Apparently no. Throughout the book capitalism is described as a form of non-zero sum game, although we all think of it as founded on competition, not cooperation. But, again, in the world of vague definitions one can always turn competition into cooperation. Did the French and the British compete in Africa? Of course. But then one can also claim that they "cooperated" in turning Africa into European colonies.
That's for the first few chapters. Wright then, basically, proceeds to answer objections like mine in a more professional and erudite way. At one point he realizes that he has not mentioned the Greeks. His excuse is very simple: they were not such a big deal. In the following chapter he explains how the Barbarians, instead, were a big deal: they helped (he claims) create a more advanced European world. He writes "thank heavens for Barbarians!" According to Wright, the Roman Empire was replaced by a more efficient system. He even seems to think that this new system (the medieval system of city-states) is an example of non-zero sum game (cooperation) instead of zero-sum game (competition), and the Roman Empire was the opposite, a reversal of their intuitive roles which is truly hard to understand. He writes "The story of the Middle Ages is the story of... non-zero sum-ness restructuring society". On the contrary, it seems to this reader that the Roman Empire was one of the best examples of cooperation (non-zero sumness) and its disintegration led to an age of competition (zero zumness) among the former pieces of it. But, again, when definitions are vague, we don't really know what we are talking about.
He later analyzes why the industrial revolution happened in Europe and not in China. It does not occur to him that maybe (just maybe) science and philosophy may have been an enabling factor. Maybe (just maybe) Europe's progress was temporarily delayed by his friends the Barbarians. After one thousand years Europe finally resumed its progress, and, having rediscovered Greek philosophy and science (thanks to the non-barbaric Arabs), proceeded to invent all sorts of theories that the Chinese could not possibly invent because they had had Confucius instead of the Greek philosophers and mathematicians. Western science and philosophy enabled the industrial revolution, and those came from the Greeks. And the Barbarians did not increase the chances of the industrial revolution to happen, but decreased them. Wright cannot come up with this simple scenario because his premises are that the Greeks were negligible and the Barbarians were good for progress. Then his only explanation for Europe's supremacy over China is that Europeans explored the world and China didn't. Which is fine and dandy, but it is hard to see the connection between the tobacco and cotton of America and the invention of the steam machine. (The gold stolen from the Americas was obviously not a factor, since the industrial revolution took place in England and not at all in Spain).
Wright even tries to explain Europe's success as stemming from the competition among European states (whereas China was one monolithic empire). But doesn't that prove the opposite of what he wants to prove? Isn't a system of competing nation-states a zero-sum game, and China's monolithic empire an example of non-zero sumness? He then adds that feudal Japan advanced faster than China for the same reason: internal chaos fostered competition.
I'm afraid that, in order to understand why Wright thinks that the Greek philosophers and mathematicians were negligible, one has to be acquainted with today's primary and secondary education in the USA: most families think that studying the classics is a waste of time, and they prefer their children to study things that will be useful at work (or that will prevent sexual diseases). Wright is a product of that culture. He doesn't want his children to become as erudite as Aristotle, he wants them to become as rich as Bill Gates (and to use condoms). Thus he does not see what the big deal was with the Greeks.
It is also a bit annoying that he keeps misleading the reader on many little details. For example, to prove that the Ming emperors shut down China from the rest of the world, he writes that the Great Wall was built during Ming times. It was actually built 1,500 years earlier. Yes, the Ming emperors repaired it and extended it, but why omit the information that the Great Wall had been first built in 204 BC, and the Ming emperors simply expanded something that had been already in existence for 15 centuries?
He writes an interesting chapter on the printing press, but his claims about its impact on the masses are a little far-fetched: he omits the basic fact that the people who knew how to read and write were the exactly the same people who had already had access to books before. Yes, one could print many more copies of a pamphlet, but that pamphlet was not going to influence the masses, for the simple reason that the masses couldn't read it. His points (that the printing press weakened multilingual empires and that "the printing press lubricated protest") may still be valid, but one should tell the whole picture and not just a small part of it (as he does over and over again).
The real book ends with chapter 16. My attention span was seriously tested by the few chapters on life and the last two concluding chapters.
For a book that makes such a big deal of non-zero sumness, I think Wright omitted to mention an important theorem proven by VonNeumann in 1944: "Any n-person non-zero-sum game can be reduced to an n + 1 zero-sum game, and such n + 1 person games can be generalized from the special case of the two-person zero-sum game". I always found that to be one of the most interesting parts of game theory, but Wright seems to think that this theorem is negligible. Again, we have different ideas about what matters and what does not matter, what should not be omitted and what can be omitted.
Is this book a waste of time? The initial chapters are thoroughly disposable. As one proceeds into the second half, one stumbles more and more often into more and more interesting pages (for example, how cuneiform writing came to be, or how capitalism helped the invention and spread of the alphabet, or why the Chinese never did much with the printing press, or how the telegraph decoupled communication and information). Nothing is revolutionary, but it makes for a well-informed presentation of cute trivia.
If only Wright stopped talking about non-zero sumness. His argument does not hold water, and, after a while, it is truly annoying to see him trying to explain that even the most obvious zero-sum (competitive) situations are non-zero sum (cooperative) situations. One can't help thinking: there's a theorem that shows that the two kinds of situation are equivalent, and anyone with a brain can tell you that competition eventually creates a system that benefits all the survivors (i.e., may appear as cooperation) and, viceversa, cooperation creates a system where people can compete. Bottom line: who cares.